N. C. Fleming argues that apparently contradictory Conservative positions on socio-economic uncertainty and "Hard Brexit", actually have their antecedents in attitudes within the party a century ago.

"> N. C. Fleming argues that apparently contradictory Conservative positions on socio-economic uncertainty and "Hard Brexit", actually have their antecedents in attitudes within the party a century ago.

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Opinion Articles


Conservatives, Patriotism and State Intervention: An Edwardian Inheritance


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Theresa May’s debut conference speech as Conservative leader signalled a departure from David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Acknowledging the positive role of the state in promoting economic and social fairness, May appears to question the free market dogma that has clung to her party since it was led by Margaret Thatcher.

If the Prime Minister’s speech marked a calculated bid for the centre ground of British politics, the same cannot be said of her disposition to pursue a ‘hard Brexit’, preoccupation with immigration and advocacy of grammar schools. There was a strong dose of populism too in her expressions of disdain for cosmopolitan elites and ‘corporate’ greed. Some have suggested that May’s message is confused or even contradictory, a product of the post-EU referendum fallout. Yet it echoes some of the rhetoric and outlook of Conservative tariff reformers a century ago.

Inspired by Joseph Chamberlain, the tariff reform movement combined imperial patriotism with social reform. Under his scheme, foreign importers would bear the brunt of increased tariffs which in turn would pay for social reform. Chamberlain offered tariff reform as a panacea to Conservatives anxious about great power rivalry and the rise of socialism. It is striking that May’s conference speech was given at Birmingham, Chamberlain’s political fiefdom. And the Prime Minister’s closest advisor, Nick Timothy, is said to be an admirer of the Victorian Radical turned Liberal Unionist.

In Chamberlain’s time, not all Conservatives were happy with abandoning free market orthodoxy and giving the state an increased role in trade and welfare. Indeed, much of the party’s support for tariff reform was pragmatic: a means of demonstrating that Conservatives had an alternative to David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’. But the policy also had its zealous believers. After Chamberlain succumbed to a stroke in 1906, these younger Conservative MPs and journalists formed ‘the Confederacy’, and pursued a vigorous campaign to purge the party of free traders. In stark contrast to Thatcherites in the 1980s, these right-wing ultra-patriots regarded laissez faire economics as the root of all Britain’s problems, including immigration.

The Confederacy’s ideas are found in its 1908 collection of essays, The New Order: Studies in Unionist Policy. In a chapter on ‘Home Industry’, E.G. Spencer-Churchill declared that ‘under a system of laissez faire such as ours the nation may not prosper’. The government’s function, he argued, ‘should be to regulate circumstances so that the interests of the individual and of the nation lie in the same direction.’ In a survey of the labour question, Arthur Steel-Maitland (from 1911 the first chairman of the Conservative party) blamed laissez faire economics for abusive work practices and recalled the Conservative Factory Acts of the 1840s to argue for some modest regulation. Questioning the casualization of work contracts, Steel-Maitland prefigured recent criticism of zero hours contracts by claiming that ‘such a practice clearly involves harm to the community which may be greater than the benefits’. However easy and cheap it might be to the employer, he averred that ‘the extra quality of regular labour may be more than worth the extra risk.’

The nineteenth century Factory Acts were also invoked by Ronald McNeill in a chapter on ‘Socialism’.  He even acknowledged the usefulness of the Marxian critique of the ill effects of laissez faire, albeit remarking that these were more apparent in Marx’s lifetime. The future Kent MP looked on the United States economy with particular disdain, criticising its ‘trusts and combines and all such American tricks of trade’. McNeill championed the state’s encouragement of ‘peasant ownership of the land’, as a means of ‘strengthening the foundations of private property and free industry’, a theme which was also taken up by the MP for Rye, G.L. Courthope, in his chapter on ‘The Land’. The ‘capabilities of the soil are not at present fully developed’, Courthope believed, so ‘that steps must be taken to increase the benefits conferred on people by the land.’ The ‘task of the politician and the statesman is so to regulate the use of the land entrusted to their care that the greatest possible advantage accrues to the nation that dwells upon it.’ The ‘right people’, he felt, should be encouraged to go back to the land and the state must take a greater role in research and education.

The Confederacy’s statist inclinations might have been too radical for most Conservatives but they were hardly radical by contemporary standards. For all their railing against cosmopolitan elites and wealthy plutocrats, Confederates were at pains to warn against too large a state: ‘tyranny tempered by corruption’, according to McNeill, ‘The temptation to bribe and the temptation to blackmail would be infinitely increased under a system in which the Government official would be omnipresent as well as omnipotent.’ Yet the Confederates’ modest enthusiasm for state intervention was not altogether ignored, for it was given new relevance by the First World War, which like the Second World War, obliged Conservatives to radically rethink their fidelity to economic orthodoxy.

The Confederacy’s pronounced imperial patriotism, advocacy of limited state intervention, concern about immigration, and populist (if selective) anti-elitism demonstrate that the pronouncements delivered at last week’s Conservative party conference are not peculiar to the dramatic consequences of the June referendum on EU membership. Only time will tell if these are transient themes for the party. If they hold, it is a measure of the crisis facing British politics that on previous occasions it took global conflict to prompt a similar revision of Conservative attitudes to the state.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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